My First Encounter with the IEP Process

Imagine this…it’s January of 1999, my daughter, Elizabeth, who is 7 and in the 2nd grade, has spent 5 days in a behavioral health hospital after taking Ritalin. She has a working diagnosis of OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) and depression, and is now on an antidepressant. The psychiatrist recommends that she receive a psychological evaluation.

So, in February of 1999, we trotted Elizabeth off to the Children’s Health Council in Palo Alto, California (we lived in California at the time). We did not really understand that we were getting a neuropsychological (neuropsych) evaluation. From these evaluations, Elizabeth was diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder, a learning disorder, short term memory problems, and anger management issues. In the reports we received, specific accommodations for her educational needs were given as well as a recommendation that she receive an occupational therapy evaluation.

From the reports by the behavior hospital and the Children’s Health Council, it was obvious that Elizabeth had some long-term issues that would need to be addressed by the educational system as well as by private counseling and psychiatric support. So, with copies of the reports for the principal of the school, I headed off to talk to her. The principal told me that we would need to have an IEP meeting to determine if Elizabeth qualified. A date was set for the meeting.

At the meeting, I was expecting the principal to be present, the classroom teacher, and maybe the occupational therapist. When I walked into the conference room, I was shocked. There were about 10 people in the room, most of whom I had never seen before. There may have been verbal introductions, but I don’t remember them.

The classroom teacher was asked to attend for a few minutes and seemed totally overwhelmed herself in the room (which was too small for the number of people). She was asked if she had any special accommodations she was currently making for Elizabeth. At that time, I knew that she had a special area for Elizabeth to go to when she got frustrated or angry. She also had clay and drawing materials available for her to work with to help calm her and she was adjusting the amount of work Elizabeth had to do. However, what the teacher said when questioned, was that she was not doing anything special to help Elizabeth.

After the teacher was done saying Elizabeth did not need any special support, one of the people in the room said that because she was on grade level, she did not qualify for an IEP.

OK…Maybe the special educators at the meeting did not intend to intimidate me, but I felt overwhelmed, intimidated, stressed, depressed…do I need to go on?

Before attending the meeting, I had done a little research about IEP’s and knew that there were IEP classifications for seriously emotionally disturbed students (in California, an SED). So, I asked the team of people if Elizabeth would qualify for this. This is what I remember being told: “You don’t want Elizabeth to be stigmatized by being classified with an SED. This will follow her around for the rest of her life.”

I was stunned yet again. These are educators who are responsible for educating my daughter, who knew from the reports that she had major issues, but were more worried about a stigma? OK, I’ll be honest, my frustration began to show. I said that whether or not they classified her with an SED, she would have most of these issues her entire life. When I got blank stares, I really got carried away. The meeting was held just after the Columbine shootings. So I decided that I would try scaring them and said, “If my daughter does not receive the support she needs at school as well as at home, you could very well be looking at a child who might do something similar to Columbine.” (At that time, her anger issues were such that it was not hard to conceive, especially when I was trying to get their attention.)

The meeting was concluded with no support for my daughter. This was the beginning of our struggle to meet Elizabeth’s educational needs.

Even though this story may seem grim, I want you to know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. 1999 was a long time ago and some schools and school districts have made good progress in ensuring that the IEP process is more collaborative. And of course: Learning Differences World is here to make sure that your light is bright and your tunnel is short.

Update: I now know that this meeting was not an IEP meeting, but a multi-disciplinary meeting to determine if Elizabeth should be referred to special education for an evaluation. Make sure you know what meeting you are attending beforehand and who will be present. Join us for our Phone Seminar on September 24th to learn more about the various meetings.

What’s Your Story?

Have you felt overwhelmed and intimidated at school meetings? Has there ever been a moment where who you knew a child needed support but those around you didn’t agree? Have you had great support and your child’s needs have always been met? Learning Differences World is interested in your story. By sharing our stories and listening to the voices of parents, educators and service providers, we believe we can all learn how to make the system better for all children. So, share your story by commenting below or send us an email. Your privacy and your children's privacy is important to us - please use fictitious names when sharing your story.

Note: Elizabeth gave me permission to use her real name because her name is used in court records. But, that is a topic for another blog post.